Was Duke’s zone exposed, or did the Blue Devils run into a North Carolina team we’ve overlooked this season?

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NEW YORK — The change was gradual.

Duke has forever been known as a man-to-man team. It was the ethos of Mike Krzyzewski’s defense. Pressure guards, deny passing lanes, dare ball-handlers to try and beat their defenders one-on-one, let them try and run ball-screens. That is who they’ve been for years and years and years.

But that wasn’t working this season, not when what makes the Blue Devils so damn good is the fact that their front court of two freshmen fives is unstoppable. Wendell Carter is a lottery pick, a workhorse on the block that can wall-up at the rim and pound the glass and overwhelm just about any defender that comes his way, and he’s clearly and undoubtedly the second-best big man on their roster. When you can force defenses to try and figure out how they are going to slow down Marvin Bagley III with a college power forward, you’re coming out ahead more often than not.

“He’s different,” said Nolan Smith, a four-year player for Duke that was a first-team all-american as a senior, a first round pick and could very well still an NBA point guard if his health hadn’t given out on him. He’s been around. He would know. “I’ve a seen lot of guys in the NBA, and his second and third jump is second to none.”

The problem is that they just couldn’t figure out how to make it work defensively, which is not an uncommon problem to have when dealing with freshmen. There is a reason that the saying among coaches is that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores, but since becoming a one-and-done factory, Coach K no longer has that luxury. He doesn’t get a couple of seasons to teach his guys how to defend the way that he wants them do. He gets a couple of months, and by early February, it was obvious to everyone.

Their man-to-man defense?

It wasn’t working.

“We tried a lot of different things in man throughout the season,” Smith said. “Icing ball-screens to blacking ball-screens to switching ball-screens.”

They had to make a change.

“We never declared it,” Grayson Allen said of becoming a zone team. “It was just, OK, we’re going to play zone this game, so we prepared zone and man. The next game we prepared zone more than man. The next game we prepared all zone. And it started to work for us. We had a stretch where three or four teams couldn’t score against us.”

It stuck.

It turned Duke from one of college basketball’s top 80 defenses to one that has climbed all the way to 7th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. The defense that they have played over the course of the last nine games is on par with the defense that the likes of Virginia and Cincinnati have played all season long. It’s why they are currently the only team to rank in the top ten of both offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom. It’s why there are many that believe Duke is not one of, if not the favorite to win the national title in San Antonio three-and-a-half weeks from today.

That was until they faced off with North Carolina on Friday night.

The Tar Heels are uniquely suited to being able to attack a 2-3 zone. The way that the Tar Heels play this season is different from any Roy Williams-coached team in recent memory. Thanks to the early and unexpected departure of Tony Bradley last year, the Tar Heels have had to embrace the small-ball ideal. Theo Pinson, a play-making wing by trade, is their power forward. Luke Maye, a stretch-four through and through, is their starting center. That’s a far cry from the UNC teams of yesteryear, when Tyler Hansbrough and Sean May and Kennedy Meeks turned the paint into a beefcake factory.

But it also allows UNC to slice up a 2-3 zone, and Pinson is the key that unlocks it all. His ability to pass from the high-post combined with the fact that the shooting ability of Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson on the perimeter makes them a nightmare offensively, one that cannot be overwhelmed by a front line the size of Duke’s. Bagley finished with 19 points and 13 boards against the Tar Heels on Friday night, but he had to work for those stats. Pinson — who stands 6-foot-6 with long arms, the physicality that comes with being a senior and the athleticism to boot — held his own on the block against a top three pick.

There aren’t a lot of college fours that are going to be able to do both of those things.

Which begs the question: Did North Carolina provide the nation with a diagram on how to beat Duke’s now-vaunted 2-3 zone, or was this simply a product of the Tar Heels being a perfect matchup for Duke at this point in time?

Let’s take a dive into the numbers, shall we?

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

According to SportVU, which is a service that provides spatial data on things like how open shooters are, 35 of the 42 jumpers that the Tar Heels attempted on Friday night were open jumpers, which is defined as having no defender within five feet of the shooter on the release. They made just 14 of those jumpers, a 40 percent clip and much lower than the average of roughly 60 percent shooting on open jump shots. Put another way, UNC scored just 1.02 points-per-possession against Duke’s defense, but that may had have as much to do with the fact that the Tar Heels missed shots that they usually would make more than the fact that Duke’s defense was impenetrable.

“If we were playing man and they shot 18 out of 24 from 3, then you’d be asking why didn’t you defend the 3 better,” Krzyzewski said. “But holding them to 74 points was good. They’re one of the explosive teams, as explosive as anybody. And they have two kids that can really handle the ball well in the middle of the zone in Pinson and Maye. So that’s good for us. The two games we played here, Colson can do that, too, so we got a chance to work our zone against probably two of the best teams that would work against us, and we gave up 70 and 74 points.

“The zone wasn’t bad. … It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.”

I would tend to agree with Coach K here.

Let’s work through some zone theory for a second.

When the point guard has the ball at the top, the idea is to brings the wing defender so high to force passes to the corner or short corner to be thrown with air under it to give the defenders a chance to recover. The center is supposed to stay at the rim to protect against a lob to the opposing center on the baseline, and it’s the guards job at the top of the zone to keep the pass from getting to the high post. It’s the last part of that paragraph that was the biggest issue on Friday.

“Defensively, me and Tre [Duval] up top needed to do a little bit better job of trying to keep it out of the middle,” Allen said.

So there are some issues there.

But more than anything, Duke ran into a team that is built perfectly to break down the defense that they are playing.

And they still found a way to erase a 16-point lead with 5:33 left on the clock, getting two possessions in the final minute with a chance to tie.

Duke is not without their flaws this season, and we could spend another 1,500 words talking about some of the issues they have on the offensive end of the floor with their spacing.

But more than anything, Friday night taught us that this North Carolina team is one that we need to take seriously.

Duke can still win a national title this season. They still might be the favorite.

And North Carolina can win it all, too.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.